Is it legal, ethical, or even wise to utilize these killing machines?

Since the first attack took place in 2002, the military use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones has increased dramatically and it is currently one of the most popular target elimination techniques. Armed forces are successfully using satellite controlled drones to launch attacks and remotely eliminate threats; but to what end? Is it legal, ethical, or even wise to utilize these killing machines? This article aims to tackle the issue and address the moral and ethical implications of military UAVs.

For Military UAVs

The main target behind the development of drone technology is to eventually eliminate the endangerment of human lives in military warfare.  Ever since the start of drone warfare, drone effectiveness and accuracy have been drastically improved through research and development. For example, between January 2012 and July 2013 there were about 65 drone strikes in Pakistan that resulted in the death of at least 308 people. The civilian casualty rate was estimated at less than 1.5 percent, this speaks for the colossal technological leap in a drone’s ability to discriminate between a civilian and the intended target. This can be compared to the Russian aerial strikes on Syria within the last years which have taken an approximate number of 3600 lives. Of those casualties, 1400 were said to be civilians and that gives a civilian casualty rate of around 40 percent.

RAF Reaper Drone

Drone popularity has increased substantially because they are now the cheaper alternative when compared to conventional military air strikes. The operating cost of a drone averages at about 1500 USD per flight hour, whereas the operating cost of a military aircraft such as the F-35 which would cost around 32,000 USD per hour. Consequently, increasing the use of drones will inevitably lead to a reduction in the military’s capital expenditure. This would also allow the government to divert their resources towards other issues such as health care and education. Even when considering the manufacturing costs of these warfare systems, the drones are clearly cheaper than other military aircraft such as the F-35 mentioned above.

Considering the ethical side of this problem, drone strikes are legal under international law. Article 51 of the UN Charter provides for a nation’s inherent right to self-defense when it has been attacked. This article is only valid if the targeted state agrees to the use of force in its territory, or the targeted group operating within its territory was responsible for an act of aggression against the targeting state where the host state is unwilling or unable to control the threat themselves. This law has always been abided by when scheduling drone strikes in order to avoid unnecessary friction between the two states involved.

The use of drone warfare is known to make the users feel safer than traditional warfare. In the case of the military the drones are launched from close proximity and controlled from considerably great distances, such as from neighboring countries or even overseas, giving the military a greater sense of comfort which is not affordable to ground troops. Drone warfare also makes civilians safer as they are conscious of lower likelihood of casualty in drone warfare

All in all, the elimination of key targets which threaten national security SHOULD be dealt with by drones in order to minimize collateral damage.

Against Military UAVs

The foundational tenet of war explained in jus in bello prohibits attacks ‘which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects’. By the principle of war proportionality, the damage incurred from military attacks limits the degree to which civilians are subjected to inflictive circumstances during war, as collateral damage.

Nevertheless, when putting the ability and precision of the drones to distinguish between military and civilians under the microscope, military UAVs have shown to fail repetitively. According to meta-data studies almost 17% of all people killed in drone strikes are civilians. A recent event underlined the erroneous nature of these attacks took place on the 3rd of October 2015 in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The attack on the city’s hospital resulted in the death of 22 doctors and patients. US officials have blamed their horrendous targeting error on malfunctioning electronics as well as human error. The actual target was a Taliban compound located more than 500 meters away.

Those opposing UAV’s have constantly raised the issue of the PlayStation mentality developed by drone pilots. This technology has eliminated the human aspect of war as the soldiers no longer perceive their targets as humans when they “kill by a remote control”. Since the UAV’s have added a video game feel to the attacks, soldiers no longer appreciate the moral value of life. However, after they realize the seriousness of their actions, drone pilots regularly experience PTSD. According to a study of 709 drone pilots, approximately 8.2% reported at least on adverse mental health outcome, most commonly disorders related to adjusting to re-entry into civilian society, depression and relationship problems.

Reciprocating the attack is the normal reaction for any group of people who have witnessed their innocent loved ones inflicted by a UAV strike. This provides the exact propaganda extremists use for recruitment to continue the endless blood cycle. Judging on the morality of this argument, one can say that it is acceptable for a pained individual to do so and engage in ‘post-heroic warfare’; wouldn’t that bring to life the imaginary vendetta between the parties?

Bombing in Pakistan

Who, why, when and how the targeting is executed raises various legal issues. Despite the fact that drones do not violate international law by violating the air space of other countries if permission from the government is granted. However, this is not often the case. The US’s continuous drone strikes on Pakistan have led the PM Nawaz Sharif to state that the “use of drones is a continued violation of our territorial integrity”. In addition, drones regularly violate international law since the targets are often suspects of no imminent threat which makes it illegal to attack them using lethal power. Amnesty International therefore classify drone attacks as war crimes.

51: Mazen Seifo, Kanjo Melo, Giorgos Marinou, Abdalla Seoud


12 thoughts on “Is it legal, ethical, or even wise to utilize these killing machines?

  1. The “Playstation mentality” that’s mentioned is really terrifying; just one of the many pitfalls of modern technology and the ease with which it has given humans a virtual barrier between carrying out something and feeling the effects of that action first-hand.


  2. The pros and cons are clearly described in the article. It can be understood that using ground troops reduces civilian and or personnel deaths, but nevertheless using drone warfare still has casualties of civilians. I strongly appose the use of any sort of warfare that has limited control over who might be the causality, in recent years a lot of innocent people have died in Pakistan from the use of drones and the government describes them as collateral damage, which goes to answer your question. The use of UAV and drones is always going to be unethical if the innocent lives taken from it are going to be labelled ‘ collateral damage ‘


  3. The main issue here is that of the accuracy of the data. In the pro-drones argument, 1.5% is quoted as the civilian death rate, but later on in the article 17% is quoted as the civilian death rate. It must also be considered that the low cost and relative ease with which drones can be deployed means that the number of strikes increases drastically. The sheer number of drone strikes in Pakistani, Syrian, or Yemeni territory would be implausible using manned aircraft. This means that despite a possible lower death rate, total number of civilian deaths is still rising, which is unacceptable.

    Following this the issue of civilian safety, I find it extremely hard to believe that civilians are feeling safe because there is “only a 1.5% chance” (if that number is even true) of them being killed by bombs from the sky. News reporters and NGO workers in Pakistan have reported drone strike victims developing an irrational fear of open spaces and even the sky itself.

    There are plenty of excellent civilian and industrial uses of drones which don’t involve killing people, drones are better used in those applications.


  4. The statistics show that drone strikes still murder civilians, even if it is in lower numbers than traditional fighter jets. It seems that it will be impossible to decrease the civilian death toll when using military air force (drones or jets), and each civilian death is another piece of propaganda for the opposition. Aside from these obvious moral issues, it always pains me to see such amazing engineering and technology being put to use in such a cold-blooded and brutal context.


  5. The pros and cons are clearly described in the article. It can be understood that using ground troops reduces civilian and or personnel deaths, but nevertheless using drone warfare still has casualties of civilians. I strongly appose the use of any sort of warfare that limits control over who might be the causality, in recent years a lot of innocent people have died in Pakistan from the use of drones and the government describes them as collateral damage, which goes to answer your question. The use of UAV and drones is always going to be unethical if the innocent lives taken from it are going to be labeled ‘ collateral damage ‘


  6. It seems that it will be impossible to reduce civilian deaths much further whilst continuing to use military air power (drones or manned aircraft), and every civilian death is another piece of propaganda for the opposition. I agree with the “Playstation mentality” point, especially seeing as war already causes a huge amount of trauma to soldiers, even if they did sign up for it in the first place. Aside from the obvious moral issues, it always saddens me to see such amazing engineering and technology being used in such a cold-blooded and brutal context.


  7. Ideally if my country was at war I would use drones as it minimises the loss of life on my side, not the enemies.
    However the issue is in how the drones are used, because the pilots and the people giving orders to the pilots dont see the bloodshed of war first hand, they don’t appreciate the weight of war and the consequence of taking a life, and thats why some countries are willing to go to war on just about anything instead of trying to find a peaceful solution
    Another issue is that these drones arnent used on battlefields, they are use to carry out assasinations on suspects who aren’t even proved guilty at times
    Drones are making killing easy and this makes war and murder easier. Which results in more violence instead of peace
    If drones were made ilegal, then going to war would have more consequences on both sides, so both sides are more likely to try finding a peaceful solution to the conflict


  8. Once upon a time, going to war actually meant that soldiers would be face to face with their enemies and the act of killing was done by a person. With drone strikes, you won’t be able to see the face of the person killing nor the one being killed. This removed the seriousness of the act of pressing the button or preparing the drone route; the ‘PlayStation’ feel that you mentioned.

    Moreover, in some countries, children grow up with constant aerial bombardment from drone making them fearful of clear blue skies. The psychological impact on the child is very difficult to undo and stays with them, possibly, for the rest of their lives.

    War is a terrible thing. The gravity of going into war cannot be understated and everyone who is involved in it- from the arms dealers to the politicians to the soldiers- should know what they are doing, they should see the harsh realities up close and personal. Drone strikes detach people from way allowing them to cause irreparable damage without batting an eyelid.

    If we allow ourselves to go to war, it should be seen for what it is, warts and all. It should not be glamourised. We should return to an era when a soldier would scary into the black hole that is deaths eyes, where they are less than a hair span from meeting their Maker to know what the true sacrifice is to go to war.


  9. This article has caused me to grow in concern over the ease with which it is possible to cause large civilian damage. I have decided to, after having read this, take myself and my family to live on a remote island in the middle of the Indian Ocean in order to avoid future threats to the safety and wellbeing of my family. For obvious reasons I cannot disclose the location of said island, but it has lots of coconut and fishes swimming in the sea. I may take a goat with me from Pakistan aswel for milk, although if I can convince my friend Habeeb, then milk can be sourced from him also. I would advise all those who read this to take a similar course of action until such a time as the world comes to realise the harmful and lasting effects of violence.


  10. Yes using a UAV might be effective in taking out imminent threats sparing countless lives of soldiers while doing so. But as statistics show civilian lives are almost always at risk which bares the question of who’s life is more valuable when using such a machine in a populated area. Either the soldiers put their lives at risk or a drone is used and innocent lives are at stake. This makes the use of drones very unethical as you are choosing the lives you want spared. A life taken whether a soldier or civilian has the same value. Casualties could be minimized by the utilization of a military operation which may take more time and money but as a result countless civilian lives are spared. Civilians who could have otherwise been killed or traumatized and had their feelings taken advantage of by the likes of terrorist organisations. Therefore the use of drones is undoubtedly unethical and counter productive as you could be taking out a threat just to bring life to another.


  11. Although there are conflicting figures for civilian death percentage between both arguments, my stance on the discussed topic is against Military UAVs because of it’s lethal effects on civilians. In my opinion, the cheaper operating cost of UAVs compared to manned aircraft or ground troops does not justify the death of innocent people or the retaliation effect it has on those that witness the murdering of their innocent loved ones in cold blood. When these murders are eventually retaliated in whatever way, the people that would be killed could also be civilians, which would indirectly cause the number of UAV civilian deaths to rise. Since murder is a crime unless sanctioned by a court of law, those responsible for drone strikes are war criminals.

    The point raised by Saqib about drone strike victims being oppressed due to the resulting irrational fear of open spaces and the sky is additional reason why UAVs are not ethical.


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